‘Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas’ by Betsy Warland
Author: Julie R. Enszer
March 29, 2016
Betsy Warland’s new book Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas travels seven years, multiple countries, and three continents. Vibrant and pulsating with life, Oscar of Between, like Warland’s other works, demonstrates Warland’s multiple engagements with crucial—and contemporary—literary, political, and aesthetic questions.
Warland is a prolific writer and formidable intellectual. Her oeuvre includes ten collections of poetry, two co-written with her then-lover and collaborator Daphne Marlatt. Warland’s memoir, Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss, blends the narrative impulse of prose with a poetic sensibility like Oscar of Between. Her 2010 writing manual, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing, is an extraordinary meditation on the experience of writing with insight on every page into the material, spiritual, emotional, and psychological conditions of writers; the fact that this book is not widely available in the United States lessens our intellectual and creative lives as writers and readers. Warland also edited two influential feminist prose collections: Telling It: Women and Language Across Cultures (Press Gang Publishers 1990), edited with Sky Lee, Lee Maracle, and Daphne Marlatt; and InVersions: Writing by Dykes, Queers & Lesbians (Press Gang Publishers 1991), edited with Valerie Speidel. These two collections capture important conversations in feminist communities in the 1990s and continue to be relevant today. Since her first published collection of poetry in 1981, A Gathering Instinct, Warland has been producing work consistently.
Yet Warland is, in her own words, “not a lesbian writer widely read by lesbians.” This review of Oscar of Between—and the accompanying retrospective—seeks to remedy that plight. Oscar of Between—the book object and the corresponding online salon that Warland has curated since 2012—challenges contemporary readers to return to Warland’s work through the process of reading and enjoying Oscar of Between. Deeply concerned with questions of gender and sexuality but equally experimental and concerned with the dynamism of language and how it works to express human lives and human conditions, Warland’s work deserves a reappraisal by critics situating it in contemporary conversations. Debates about experimental poetics that do not consider Warland’s work are partial, incomplete; genealogies of feminist poetics that exclude Warland fail to capture its rich complexity. Lesbians not reading Warland miss an important aspect of our poetic heritage. Silence surrounding Warland’s work operates as a dismissal and diminishes us all.
On its own merits, Oscar of Between is an achievement. It reminds readers of the vitality of Warland’s creative vision. Rigorously inquisitive, always probing the boundaries of language and identity, and centrally concerned with questions of beauty and transcendence in all forms, Oscar of Between straddles multiple poetry traditions and challenges the boundaries of poetry and prose. In the best of all worlds, Oscar of Between will bring Warland to greater attention in Canada and the United States, returning her work to the vital public conversations about poetry happening today.
Oscar of Between sits somewhere between a narrative sequence and an epic, somewhere between Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons and H.D.’s Helen in Egypt. The publisher describes Oscar of Between as a memoir—and the subtitle A Memoir of Identity and Ideas situates it in that rubric. At moments Oscar of Between reads like a novel, particularly with the central conceit of Oscar, a fictive narrator. Yet, the text consistently reveals the attentions, the obsessions, the lyricism, and the syntax of a poet. Oscar of Between displays in full pyrotechnics the dynamism of Warland’s poetry, including her keen intellect, inquisitiveness about language, and profound humanity.
Organized in thirty-five parts, each anchored with a year between 2007 and 2015 and a geographical location, Oscar of Between presents as an orderly text, bound by time and place. In fact it travels capaciously, at times gallivanting around wide spaces, physical and metaphorical, at other moments burrowing into details, focusing attention narrowly and with care. Warland adopts the fictive device of a central character, Oscar, who both is and is not the poet. This one fictive device drives the book. The conceit of Oscar emerges from the Camouflage Exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London. In the first display case, the quotation, “Art alone could screen men and intentions where natural cover failed,” resonates with Oscar. Warland writes
: neither man,
nor marked with natural cover.
That leaves her
This meditation on camouflage becomes a central metaphor in the book. Camouflage is a disguise that still allows one to remain in plain sight; it simultaneously conceals and reveals. Warland probes the nature of camouflage, the impulse to both not be seen and be seen, and the differing perceptions of people and bodies in a society where heteronormativity continues to be a dominant lens. Camouflage becomes protean in Warland’s hand, a metaphor to explore gender, aging, interpersonal relationships, and many other concerns.
The persona of Oscar separates the self of the poet and the self of the page, allowing for greater interrogation of the conditions surrounding Warland. Tender conversations with her child, animated discussions with colleagues and friends, public and private interactions all report through the fictive device of Oscar.
The multiplicity of Oscar as a device in the text ironically anchors the weightier meditations on perception and ideas never allowing them to become too abstract, too philosophical. In describing the manuscript in process, Warland explains in dialogue with a colleague:
“It’s about perception — how perception happens, or doesn’t happen, individually and collectively.”
“You’re writing something new here.”
“How long is new new?” Then thinking maybe it is memoir: a memoir of ideas.
How long is new new? Is new only a construction of individual and collective perception? Warland flits around these questions, responding to them as always through the work.
One of the delights of Oscar of Between is how it challenges the genre boundaries. What constitutes memoir? What is poetry? What is fiction? Does one fictive device render a full book fiction? What is the relationship between truth and artifice? The answers are in the response that Warland offers in both the content of Oscar of Between and in the process of her language experimentation.
Boundary challenges in Oscar of Between are not limited to genre. Another central question concerns gender. Gender, of course, has been a key preoccupation of feminists now for more than a century. Debates and interrogations of gender have had different tenors, different stakes, and different meanings over the decades, but they all engage an interest in understanding gender, in undoing the hierarchy of gender, and in challenging the binary. Oscar of Between shares these investments around gender. Warland continues her exploration of gender binaries illuminated by lived experience. She notes that after a double mastectomy, “Oscar more than ever in between.” Ultimately she finds language to describe her experience: “A term for herself that fits, invents one. A person of between.” This betweenness, like the camouflage, gives her the opportunity to see and be seen and also the ability to hide in plain sight. Betweenness itself a metaphor for gender and genre and a persistent concern in Warland’s work.
Warland was born and raised in the United States, in Iowa, and immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. Her life story demonstrates the betweenness she writes in the current book—between two countries in North America, between two cities in Canada. In Toronto in the 1970s, Warland initiated the Toronto Women’s Writing Collective which “offered peer-led writing workshops, organized conferences, published anthologies.” As in the United States, the 1970s was a fertile period for feminist poets in Canada; Nicole Brossard, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Livesay, and others came into public conversations amid a vibrant women’s movement. Warland’s work emerges from feminist communities of writers who surrounded her and participated in her community-based poetry work in the 1970s.
In the early 1980s, Warland moved from Toronto to Vancouver. In 1981, Toronto-based publisher Williams-Wallace published Warland’s debut collection, A Gathering Instinct. The poems of this collection do not yet carry the experimental hallmarks that characterize her later work, but they do carry the imprimatur of feminism. “You Would Climb Into My Womb” expresses the determination of feminists to live autonomous lives:
you would climb into my womb
if i let you
i have to watch you all the time
you would climb into my womb
if i let you
i walk with my legs tight together
you could crawl into my womb
roll the stone in front of its entrance
love its dark smallness
stay there until resurrection
a tiny warm tomb
you would take my life
In another poem in this collection, “If You Choose,” Warland writes that if you live “your life / on the head of a penis / then accept that / your world will be small” and that if you “search for your soul / in someone’s semen” you will be disillusioned to not find it. Calls such as this one for women’s autonomy are common in feminist poetry of the era—and are still for many readers startling and exciting. Warland also describes her divorce in this collection. This prompts her mother to say, “she’d show it [the book] to her sisters after she’d removed the first twenty pages (about the demise of my marriage) with a razor blade.” Warland reports this story in her memoir about her mother’s death, Bloodroot, and concludes, “In fact, after that, I never mentioned much about my life at all.” Separation and alienation from family of origin is another important theme for Warland.
Narrative testimonies remain an important part of Warland’s work as she continues to develop her craft in subsequent collections, but she begins to combine keen observations about gender and personal confessions with playful experimentations with language and linguistic sampling techniques. In Serpent (W)rite: A Reader’s Gloss (1987), Warland reimagines the Judeo-Christian creation story through assemblage from Genesis and other writers and thinkers. In one passage she writes:
Eve and the snake
the first dialogue
‘now the serpent was more subtile than any beast . . . Genesis
which the Lord God had made.’
subtle, teks-, text, tissue, context, tela
(tela, a weblike membrane that covers
some portion of a bodily organ)
(from turn one, unpaginated)
Transformation here is not only the meditation on the central narrative, it is an exploration—a gloss—on the language that shapes stories and a pastiche of the multiple narratives that converge to shape lives.
Warland’s work continues in this vein in Proper Deafinitions: Collected Theorograms (1990), perhaps my most favorite collection because of its explicit explorations of the erotic and eroticism in daily life and language. In the long poem, “the breasts refuse,” Warland writes about how to break the patriarchal headlock:
“there are 220 words for a sexually promiscuous female
and only 20 for a sexually promiscuous male.”
laws can be changed
but if language remains the same
the repressed returns
in a word
barely missing a step
BREAK THE HEADLOCK!
wrestle your way out of passivity
through colloquial contextualizing
In “induction,” Warland reimagines an early poem from her second collection, open is broken. She writes:
“kissing vulva lips
tongues torque way into vortex
leave syllables behind
sound we are sound
language: ‘lingua, tongue’”
The Bat Has Blue Eyes (1993) continues to explore the connections between writing and lesbian eroticism. Warland ends the sequence, “heart lines,” with these lines,
fir & alder
reeds for the wind
the shape of the lake—
in the rock in the sea
at the heart’s cleavage
where it clefts or
This brief romp through some of Warland’s poetry is an invitation to encounter her earlier work. The majority of it is out of print and only available in the second-hand book market. Pursuing it is worth the time and effort. There is something in each of Warland’s collections that I love and something in each that is vital to creating new poetic genealogies for a lesbian and feminist canon.
This peek into Warland’s backlist also explicates some of the themes that she has explored consistently throughout her work. Questions of feminism, language, identity, bodies, and eroticism emerge persistently from her work. Her engagement with the nature of language and the experimentations with how language is formed, how it is presented on the page, what are the limits of language and its linearity, particularly for women and lesbians, positions her as an important experimental poet and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, though she is rarely included in those genealogies.
Two other aspects of Warland’s work emerge as hallmarks: her commitment to community-based poetry and her commitment to collaboration. In Toronto and its environs in the 1970s, Warland was a central the emergent feminist literary community. In addition to the Women’s Writing Collective, Warland was the co-organizer of Writers-in-Dialogue with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore during the 1970s. She moved to Vancouver in the early 1980s and continued her community-based poetry practice. She organized the 1983 three-day conference, “Women and Words/Les femme et les mots.” Over a thousand women attended this conference. It was one of the high water marks of feminist poetry movements in North America. The organizers released a book of the proceedings from the conference. Nearly a decade later, the edited collection, Telling It, also emerged from a conference which Warland helped plan. Oscar of Between continues to express this community-based impulse. Oscar’s Salon is a virtual community of writers and artists engaged with the thinking and production of Oscar of Between. One way to think about Warland’s work is as community-based collaboration. The words and lives of hundreds of women shaped what ultimately appears on the pages of books with Warland’s name on the cover.
Warland explicitly collaborated with Daphne Marlatt on two book projects: Double Negative and Two Women at a Birth. Double Negative documents the poets journeys in Australia. Two Women at a Birth gathers work from Marlatt’s Touch of My Tongue, dedicated to Warland, and Warland’s Open is Broken, dedicated to Marlatt, and includes additional co-authors work. Two Women at a Birth reveals some of the most beautiful and erotic writing of each author—and opens questions about the nature of collaboration, authorship, female friendship, and women’s relationships within the texts. The more contemporary collaborations of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, gathered beautifully in Caprice (Sibling Rivalry Press 2015), pick up parts of Marlatt and Warland’s conversations.
Aesthetics, which I have been defining lately as “an experience of beholding,” are gendered in exclusive ways in the United States. The notion of an aesthete, of one who has refined sensibilities to art and nature, is often gendered male—and reserved for men with money, with style, with access to particular forms of cultural capital. Yet, lesbians are equally capable of aestheticism, equally able to develop refined sensibilities and experience profound appreciation and joy in beauty. Warland’s work reminds readers of the role of the aesthetic in feminist lives and lesbian lives.
Books are one object through which Warland expresses her appreciation of beauty, although books are not all that Warland finds beautiful. In Breathing the Page, she meditates on the tools of the writer: paper, pencil, alphabet, the table, the computer, the writing room. She describes her own writing tables:
My writing tables have always been old, soft wood tables with a drawer or two tucked just beneath their tops. Over time, as I become familiar with their marks, scratches, and stains—the patina traces of previous owners—I am comforted by their hints of histories I will never know.
She continues meditating on the grain of wood, the history of tables, the relationship of tables to institutions, finally concluding, “A table is the pith of living: it deserves odes as one of our oldest, most steadfast companions.” Warland’s meditation on tables expresses a key aspect of lesbian aesthetics: the ability to aestheticize that which is available, that which is present. Rather than seeking rare objects for transcendent moments of beauty, rather than embracing objects driven by consumerism and commercialization, rather than discovering transcendent moments of beauty in hours of leisure in nature, Warland, like many lesbians, finds beauty and transcendence in objects available, in objects that surround them in daily life.
For this reason, it is not surprising that as a writer, Warland finds beauty in books. In one meditation, Warland cries for books, “for the sheer generosity of books—how the give themselves to us to be written then entrust themselves to be held, read, in anyone’s hands.” Metaphorically, books are a fulcrum, holding joy of the writer and pleasure of the reader together in one object. Books are also vulnerable: they need to be sold, stored, and maintained. Books are sites of violence—as when Oscar’s mother wanted to cut the pages from her book about divorce. Warland describes this incident in Oscar of Between:
Her first book. Oscar’s brother visited shortly after and was privy to their mother’s plan to take a razor blade. To. Oscar’s book. Cut. Out. The first twenty pages. Pages about the demise of Oscar’s marriage. Before. Before her mother would show the book to her sisters. On the Strict. Strict condition that they never. Never mention it to their husbands. Nor, for that matter, anyone.
The book, Warland’s first book, becomes the body on which the family directs their anger and violence.
Equally shocking for readers invested in the aesthetics of books is the diminishment of the beautiful object. In Oscar of Between, copies of Warland’s books become something that must be discarded in a process of “divesting.” Oscar decides to “throw away 400 of her own books: InVersions, but mostly Proper Deafinitions:
Slicing open the top of each box, Oscar winces at their gleaming expectant covers. She sets aside one box of each book to take back to her apartment and wheels the rest out to the dumpster. Throws them over its five-foot-high sides: thud. Thus. Box after box. Oscar reviews her logic: tired of moving them (thud), no market for them (thud), no room in her apartment (thud, thud); can’t afford the storage (thud). She does not change her mind.
A peculiar feeling—destroying books you have authored. Peculiar.
The physicality of the experience of divesting of these books, their weight as they hit the bottom of the dumpster, combines with a commentary on how society devalues lesbian’s lives and works. Warland’s resilience and the call of the “gleaming expectant covers” leads her back to marveling at “the sheer generosity of books.” Although seemingly contradictory, these aesthetic juxtapositions of beauty and violence, beauty and brutality seem a fitting depiction of the contemporary relations between lesbians and beauty, between lesbians and destruction. Yet, another book has given itself to Warland in Oscar of Between. The quest for beauty continues. The affirmation of beauty in books held in lesbian hands filled with lesbian words sustains.
Many of the community organizations that nurtured Warland early in her career exist no longer; nor do many of her earlier publishers, including gynergy books and Press Gang Publishers. Rather than mourning these endings, however, the “sheer generosity of books” sustains other community organizations and publishers and invites new communal formations to emerge. The publisher of Oscar of Between demonstrates both continuance and emergence. Caitlin Press began publishing feminist work in 1977. Through the decades, it has evolved as a publisher always reflecting its feminist roots and its sense of place in Canada. Oscar of Between launches a new imprint of the press: Dagger Editions. Dagger Editions is dedicated to publishing work by queer women and launches with Warland’s Oscar of Between and Nicola Harwood’s Flight Instructions for the Commitment Impaired. New books for new times. The generosity of it.
In Oscar of Between, Oscar emerges as a contemporary everywoman or everyman. Oscar is “not housed in an acceptable body” and “a person of between.” From the space of between, beauty and grace emerge. Once again Betsy Warland is writing a story about queer lives today. Listen. Join the conversation with her.
Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas
By Betsy Warland
Paperback, 9781987915167, 216 pp.